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Ulster gets softer touch on standards

The Government's school improvement initiative has arrived in Northern Ireland, in the shape of eight explanatory booklets weighing a hefty three pounds, plus an extra pound;5.7m funding for the next financial year.

The policies reflect those for England and Wales, but emphasise "naming and shaming" schools less. Instead, there will be support for about 80 struggling primary and secondary schools. Closure or merger will be considered "where a school is judged to have persistent serious weaknesses".

Northern Ireland does not have educational associations to take over failing schools, but the minister proposes that action teams should draw up plans to ensure that pupils' educational needs are met.

The teams would include representatives of the local education and library board or Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the school itself, businesses and heads who have dealt successfully with similar problems.

There will be less emphasis on getting rid of weak teachers, but ineffective teachers, principals or senior managers must be identified and offered support and training.

If teachers do not improve within an agreed time limit governors will be able to begin procedures to dismiss them.

Education minister Tony Worthington says Northern Ireland does not have the same literacy and numeracy problems. These subjects are generally soundly taught.

Schools will be encouraged to form reading and maths clubs to meet before or after school or at lunchtime.

Each education board will nominate six staff as literacy and numeracy development officers to help schools. Benchmarking data will be supplied by the department and advice will be given on improving boys' performance.

All primaries will have access to at least one teacher trained in Reading Recovery by the year 2007, but they will have to pay pound;13,000 towards this and must agree to keep the teacher for at least five years.

Information about School Improvement: the Northern Ireland Programme is available on the Department of Education's Internet site: http:www.deni.gov.uk.

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